Feet on the ground: Cincinnati's push for people-friendly streets by pat lafleur

CINCINNATI -- Last week marked two years since two high-profile road fatalities lit a spark among neighborhoods across the city demanding safer streets for non-motorists.

Michael Prater, well known among Tri-State cyclists, was riding along U.S. 52 just outside the city limits when an impaired motorist struck him on his bicycle. The impact threw Prater from his bike, and he died from his injuries the next day, Feb. 1, 2016.

Just a week earlier, Stephen Frank was crossing Erie Avenue in Hyde Park when a Metro bus struck and pinned him under the vehicle. Frank also died from his injuries.

These two incidents together mark a watershed moment in residents' increasing outcry over the safety of city streets for pedestrians and bicyclists. Since, the issue has remained a consistent topic of community and city council meetings.

Since then, many -- too many more have died. This is a look back a a few of the most impactful, powerful moments over the last two years, as the city makes strides for more people-friendly streets.

Back-to-back fatalities

(January 2016)

Stephen Frank, 73, was walking through Hyde Park with his daughter Emily when Metro bus driver Rev. Tyrone Patrick turned left against a walk signal and struck the pair in the crosswalk. Stephen became pinned under the vehicle while Emily was knocked away. Stephen would later die from his injuries.

The scene at Erie and Edwards in Hyde Park, where a Metro bus struck Stephen and Emily Frank in a crosswalk. (Evan Millward/WCPO)

Patrick, 57 at the time, was formerly the chaplain for the Cincinnati Fire Department and had been operating a Metro bus for more than a decade. He pleaded guilty to one count of vehicular homicide and was sentenced to 180 days in jail, but that time was suspended. In addition to 500 hours of community service, Patrick was issued a $1,000 fine, three years probation and his drivers licenses were suspended for five years. He also owed more than $4,000 in restitution.

Just days later, 42-year-old cyclist Michael Prater was riding along U.S. 52 in Anderson Township when Melinda Woodall, 34 at the time, drifted onto the shoulder and struck Prater from behind, throwing him from his bicycle. He would die from his injuries the next day.

Police accused Woodall of driving while high on 10 different drugs, including prescription narcotics. Woodall fled the scene before police apprehended her shortly after the crash, when officers found various types of drug paraphernalia in her vehicle.

In court, prosecutors said she "left (Prater) by the side of the road to die like an animal." Woodall pleaded no contest to charges of aggravated vehicular homicide as well as various drug charges and fleeing the scene of a crash.

She was sentenced to 13 years in prison.

Taking it to City Hall

(February 2016)

Only a few days after Prater's death, City Council member P.G. Sittenfeld filed a motion calling for the administration to study which crossings and intersections throughout the city are most dangerous for pedestrians.

The Feb. 10, 2016 motion got council's unanimous support.

That motion and subsequent study, in turn, led a year later to Sittenfeld moving that the administration make pedestrian safety a "top priority."

"We move that the Administration work with neighborhoods across the city...to identify target engineering and enforcement improvement areas and to create an advisory group of stakeholders and experts in this area," the motion read. The motion cited what it called "several high-profile pedestrian deaths and called for capital funding to go towards education, engineering and enforcement efforts.

Sarah Cole

(Sept. 9, 2016)

The most inciting moment in this story is probably the death of Sarah Cole.

Cole was an accomplished chef who owned and ran Tickle Pickle, a popular burger joint on Hamilton Avenue in Northside's business district. On Sept. 9, 2016, Cole was crossing Hamilton when she was struck. She later died from her injuries.

Northside community members assembled this memorial shortly after the death of local business owner Sarah Cole. (Ashley Zilka/WCPO)

Cole was very popular among the Northside community, and her sudden death rocked the neighborhood. One of her employees described her to WCPO as "one of the kindest, most hard-working women" she had ever met.

Cole's passing was among the incidents to which Sittenfeld's motion was referring as one of "several high-profile pedestrian deaths."

Rallying after a deadly month

(Sept.-Oct. 2016)

In the weeks following Cole's death, the stage was set for Northsiders to organize and make their voices heard in a way they hadn't yet already.

Cole was one of eight pedestrians and bicyclists hit and killed by vehicles on the road over a four week period between September and October.

"We've got to do something," Judi LoPresti, another Northside business owner, told WCPO in October of 2016. LoPresti owns Spun Bicycles -- also on Hamilton Avenue -- with her husband Dominic.

LoPresti was part of a group of residents and business owners who organized what they referred to as a "walkabout rally," where participants marched up and down the sidewalks on Hamilton Avenue carrying signs and waving flags during the evening rush.

"We want people to understand that there are businesses here, pedestrians here," she said. "This is a pedestrian neighborhood. Drivers need to look at these signs right now, because we're mad."

A year following the initial rally, some business owners had installed make-shift flags and flag holders positioned at some of the avenue's busier crossings, for pedestrians to wave as they cross.

Khloe Pitts

(Nov. 26, 2016)

It didn't take long after Cole's death for another high-profile incident to make headlines. Three-year-old Khloe Pitts was killed when she and her mother were struck crossing the street after visiting the Cincinnati Zoo's annual Festival of Lights.

Police accused Donteiz Dickey of striking the pair and then fleeing the scene on Vine Street in Avondale. Dickey now faces more than a decade behind bars.

Ohio says, 'Give bikes 3 feet'

(December 2016)

After years of lobbying in Columbus, bike advocates scored a major victory when Ohio lawmakers passed a law requiring motorists leave a three-foot cushion when overtaking slower road vehicles like bicycles.

House Bill 154 won the General Assembly's approval in December of 2016, and went into effect in March of 2017.

"Having the 3-foot law helps... maybe not in writing tickets, but more so in promoting cycling and giving everyone an awareness that, 'Hey, these folks are allowed to be out there. Give them a few feet to pass,'" Steve Magas told WCPO. Magas has built his career as a lawyer defending bicyclists in cases of crashes, injuries or citations.

"It's almost as much a marketing tool for safe driving as it is a law," he said.

Kentucky also has tried to pass a three-foot law for several years. The closest it came to winning lawmakers' approval was in 2016, when Senate Bill 80 passed the Senate but then died in the House of Representatives Transportation Committee.

State Rep. Jerry Miller, R-Louisville, introduced last month a new bill that he feels confident won't meet the same end. Miller sits on the transportation committee.

"I'm confident I have the votes to get it past committee," he told WCPO last month.

Putting money where their mouths were

(June 2017)

Now joined by fellow City Council member Chris Seelbach, Sittenfeld presented a proposal to the council that would put $500,000 in capital investment toward pedestrian safety improvements on city streets.

"We want to make sure that they can safely cross the street when they are visiting businesses and restaurants in every neighborhood," Seelbach said moments before the council approved the measure. "We know that people of lower income, people of color, the elderly -- live in neighborhoods and areas where it is much less safe to cross streets."

Cincinnati City Council member Chris Seelbach (Phil Didion/WCPO)

The law directed the city's Department of Transportation and Engineering to pursue what director Michael Moore called "low-cost, high-impact" solutions for some of the city's busiest and most hazardous pedestrian crossings.

These have included crossing paddles positioned in the middle of certain crossings. The city is also exploring blinking pedestrian signs and raised crosswalks.

The city installed mid-street caution paddles along Hamilton Avenue and at other high-traffic locations. (Provided)

Busy crossings in Hyde Park and Northside received an initial round of new signage. Those installed on Hamilton Avenue in Northside were quickly removed, though, so crews could repair a busted water main. Other neighborhoods, including East Price Hill, Oakley and Clifton, among others, have made requests for new signage.

A new 'urban highway'

(June 2017)

After three years of construction, crews completed the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive/Interstate 71 interchange last June.

The project included new ramps on and off the interstate, as well as sidewalk- and road-widening efforts. Ohio Department of Transportation officials told WCPO they were meant to "increase safety and increase accessibility" on roads that serve the area's multiple hospitals.

"It was problematic getting in and out of the area," ODOT spokesman Brian Cunningham said. "Emergency responders had some problems getting to the hospitals."

But some worried the road widening threatened pedestrian safety and would discourage pedestrian traffic.

"People are definitely not going to want to walk on the sidewalk with nine lanes running through there," Cam Hardy, president of the Better Bus Coalition, said. "That seems extremely busy; that seems loud."

Tearing down bridges

(July 2017)

In late July 2017, city administrators announced that the pedestrian bridge connecting Music Hall with the Town Center Garage over Central Parkway was "in a state of imminent collapse," and was to be demolished.

Before the bridge was closed a year earlier, it served as a common entry point into Music Hall from those who used the garage to park for an event.

The bridge's demolition led some involved in the restoration of Music Hall to ask the city to help pay for a new bridge.

To others, the bridge's demolition was a harbinger announcing an opportunity for the city to rethink what pedestrian-friendly streets look like. Central Parkway spans seven lanes and lacks a crosswalk and pedestrian signals between Music Hall and the garage's entrance. This makes crossing at street level impractical if not unsafe, advocates said.

Instead, they felt the money would be better spent on improving street-level safety improvements.

COLUMN: Rebuilding Music Hall bridge misses point of pedestrian safety

"I just don't think it's an appropriate use of a million or more dollars when we have a grand entrance to Music Hall on the side of Washington Park," Seelbach said. He pointed out the new garage below the park and promised shuttle service from the Town Center Garage.

"I think the priorities are not in the right place. If we had a million dollars toward pedestrian safety, I'd ensure every kid can get across the street to get to school and not that someone going to the symphony -- who I greatly appreciate -- has a bridge to cross."

Federico Ventura

(Nov. 7, 2017)

Another busy street claimed the life of another well-known business owner in November 2017.

Federico Ventura, was hit about 6:45 a.m. as he crossed Warsaw Avenue near the East Price Hill Kroger store, then hit again and dragged by a second vehicle. The driver who hit him the first time drove off without stopping.

Ventura opened Su Tienda Julia on Warsaw Avenue roughly 16 years ago, about a decade after immigrating from Guatemala. His niece, Lisa Domingo, said he made a huge impact.

“He came here with a dream like everyone. He did what he had to do,” Domingo said. “Yeah everyone knows him.... the Hispanic people most know him."

Pedestrians most at risk

(December 2017)

All of these stories -- and the so many more not mentioned here -- prompted us at WCPO to take a closer look at crash injury and death rates in Cincinnati.

It turns out, among Ohio's three largest metro areas, Cincinnati consistently ranks highest in crashes per capita, as well as crash injuries and property damage per capita.

Looking at data over the last five years, the numbers painted a vivid picture. Non-motorists assume a much higher risk than motorists when taking to Cincinnati's streets. While non-motorists make up only a small portion of trips taken, they make up a disproportionate percentage of crash injuries and deaths:

According to data from the Ohio Department of Public Safety.

Some blame a decrease in traffic enforcement, while others say it's impractical to expect speed patrolling to prevent speeding. Others blame car-oriented -- versus people-oriented -- street design.

Most say, all those pieces need to be in place to ensure everyone's safety on the road.

Newly-elected City Council member Greg Landsmann chairs the Major Projects Committee and will be a steward for most transportation-related issues through this term. He says collaboration is the key.

"Traffic enforcement is a part of this, but it goes well beyond traffic enforcement. We need a multi-faceted approach. That's the work ahead," he said.

Created By
Pat LaFleur

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